Members of the Reparations Committee and city staff meet March 3 at the Lorraine P. Morton Civic Center. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown)

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The City of Evanston has begun meeting with the 16 beneficiaries of restorative housing grants, but so far three of those selected are renters who do not own homes and many of the other beneficiaries have home improvement goals with a higher price tag than the $25,000 benefit.

The city’s restorative housing program legislation says the $25,000 grants can go toward a mortgage, home repairs or a down payment on a new home. Reparations Committee members have said funneling the money through a financial institution, contractor or vendor will keep the grant recipient from being taxed, but the structure also may limit how the funds can be used.

Audrey Thompson, interim Parks and Recreation Director, has been tasked with following up with restorative housing grant recipients. The city opted to do one-on-one home visits, rather than a single orientation session, as a COVID-19 precaution. Thompson provided an update on her efforts at the Reparation Committee’s March 3 meeting.

The first recipients of Evanston’s reparations grants were selected randomly from among the “ancestors” applicants – Black residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969.

So far, city officials have met with nine out of 16 selected recipients – most of whom want the home improvement option. One major issue was the discovery that three housing grant recipients may not be able to accept the $25,000 because they rent their homes. These residents have asked if they could instead use the funds to purchase furniture or pay for rent.

Thompson asked the committee if the housing grant could be used for things outside of a mortgage, home improvement or new housing purchase, the sole options outlined in the restorative housing program resolution.

She said one beneficiary lives in an apartment and receives a federal housing subsidy. If that individual used the reparations funds to purchase a house, she would lose the subsidy and would not be able to afford rent since her sole income is Social Security.

Evanston’s Corporation Council Nick Cummings said that for the city to use the funds differently than originally outlined could be a problem.

“I certainly understand the frustrations and the limitations that we have as a municipality,” Cummings said. “To provide a $25,000 benefit for something else that doesn’t relate to the historical discrimination would be effectively unconstitutional and threatens the viability of the program.”

The reparations fund is governed by Resolution 126-R-19, which names housing, economic development and educational initiatives as the primary use of the funds.

In response to this, Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, told the committee that future plans need to be more “flexible.” The city reparations fund has received approximately $69,400 in donations so far, and Reid argued that those funds might not fall under the limitations of the city money.

Reid said he also wanted to remind everyone present that reparations in the past, whether for Japanese internment or for the Holocaust in Germany, were able to be used at the discretion of the recipients.

“The folks were able to do with that repair what they chose to do with it,” he said. “So, I just want to keep us grounded in that.”

Former Council member Robin Rue Simmons suggested that the committee start involving other city institutions, like the interfaith community, in the reparations conversations in order to brainstorm solutions to problems that may be out of the city’s purview to solve.

Recipient needs exceed $25,000

Thompson told the committee that individuals have been excited to receive the news that they won a grant, but that it’s clear to her that the needs of many recipients outweigh what they’re set to receive.

“I knew right up front that there will be individuals who would need far more work than $25,000,” Thompson said.

Thompson helped three residents apply for the “Evanston Benefit Card,” a program that streamlines local senior services; six other recipients were already enrolled. Cardholders are eligible for free repairs through the Handyman Program.

“And those requests include a toilet, a door, siding being replaced to the home, carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors,” Thompson said. “So all of those will be provided at no charge to the individual, simply because they qualify for the Evanston Benefit Card and the Handyman.”

Thompson also presented grant recipients with applications for Rebuilding Together of North Suburban Chicago, an organization that seeks to improve the lives of low-income homeowners by providing free repair and home improvement services.

Thompson told the committee that Rebuilding Together accepts 15 to 16 applicants a year, to whom they provide up to $20,000 in assistance per person.

“They spent tens of thousands of dollars in Evanston to complete home repairs from a porch, roof, windows, garage repairs, painting, you name it,” she said. “And so a large part of Rebuilding Together North Suburban Chicago is that it’s a free service to anyone who qualifies.”

So far, six out of the nine recipients have submitted applications to Rebuilding Together, Thompson said.

More details on recipients

During her one-one-one meetings with recipients, Thompson said she discovered that most of them do not have advanced directives, such as a will. One of the recipients was interested in transferring the benefits to a son.

Another trend she noticed is that for the majority who plan to spend their grants on home improvement, no one wanted to manage the construction work on their own; they opted for the city-provided Community Partners for Affordable Housing option, which was a point of contention at an earlier committee meeting.

Recipients also displayed an interest in viewing the city-provided list of minority contractors, curated by Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward. Thompson said some individuals have wanted to use part of their funds to pay for their mortgage, and part for home repairs, both allowed uses under the program.

“We’ve had individuals say, I just want to get Chase [Bank] off my back for about 12 months, and then use the rest of it for repairs to my home,” Thompson said.

Community member feedback

Ndona Muboyayi, a fifth-generation Evanstonian, goes to each month’s Reparations Committee meeting.

Muboyayi, co-founder of Our Village: The Black Evanstonian who also runs an educational nonprofit called Majestic Reign, live-streams the meetings for the Our Village Facebook page.

She told the RoundTable there were issues in the past with a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the committee, but she feels like the voice of the community is being heard now more than ever.

“Council member Reid brought up the issue of cash reparations, which is something that is often spoken about within the community,” she said. “Robin Rue Simmons is making sure that we include the Black business owners, making sure that that information is made available to the recipients of the repair. And then also you have individuals such as Mr. Carlis Sutton who has definitely spoken out for the seniors and the issues that they face as far as their income.”

The Reparations committee meets at 9 a.m. on the first Thursday of each month.

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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  1. 1.
    the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.
    “the courts required a convicted offender to make financial reparation to his victim”

  2. Social equity programs are a great benefit to help the most vulnerable in our community. However, to call what Evanston is doing reparations is dishonest and does a disservice to a serious issue our country should address.